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As Cocaine Abuse Decreases, Columbians Push Heroin Use

By Roberto Suro
The Washington Post
LOWELL, Mass.

During a late-night rendezvous in a convenience store parking lot, an undercover police officer negotiates a cocaine purchase during what is expected to be a routine bust of a drug dealer.

But before the sale is completed, something unusual happens: The dealer unexpectedly offers heroin, promising large quantities of high purity at strikingly low prices.

It was an "introductory special" by a determined salesman with a new product. And after repeatedly encountering the same pitch all over the Eastern Seaboard, law-enforcement officials have concluded that something new and dangerous is occurring in the nation's illicit drug markets: The same Colombians who brought cocaine to America's shores are now aggressively expanding into the heroin trade with the same tactics and distribution networks they have used so successfully in the past.

"They control cocaine, and they are looking to control heroin," said Thomas Constantine, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Crack cocaine has devastated families and neighborhoods across the country. South American heroin has the potential of doing the same."

The trend is particularly disturbing to drug-enforcement officials, because the Colombians have a long track record of bringing drugs into the United States and distributing them with unparalleled success.

And instead of finding relief in recent evidence showing cocaine use is on the decline, enforcement officials now worry that it may in reality simply indicate that another, even more dangerous product, is emerging - heroin.

National surveys that attempt to track the size of the illicit drug market show that cocaine use dropped dramatically after the crack epidemic reached its peak in the late 1980s, and that cocaine use has remained stable in recent years. DEA officials estimate the number of hard-core heroin addicts in the United States has climbed from 500,000 to 600,000 in the past few years.

The Colombians' rise to dominance in the heroin market seems to coincide perfectly with this shifting pattern of drug use. In just three years, the Colombians have moved from marginal players to the controlling force in U.S. heroin markets.

In 1993 heroin traced to South America, primarily Colombia, accounted for just 15 percent of all seizures in the United States, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department. That figure doubled the next year and then doubled again the following year, so that by 1995 more than 60 percent of all the heroin seized domestically was coming from South America.

Some law-enforcement officials are convinced that Colombian traffickers have turned to heroin as part of a long-term plan to build a huge new customer base for illicit drugs in the United States.

"They can see that the market for cocaine is basically static," said George C. Festa, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Boston field division, "and they are smart enough to know heroin's power. They are just dreaming about the possibility of having a million captive heroin addicts, and that is something that could come about in a relatively short time if we are not careful."

Law-enforcement officials do not claim to have inside knowledge about the specific strategy or long-term intentions of the Colombian kingpins and their foray into heroin. But what they see makes them suspicious that a new strategy lies behind the numbers.

Colombian heroin consistently appears at lower prices and at higher purity levels than its major rival, heroin from Southeast Asia, and this leads to the conclusion that the Colombians "seem to be buying market share away from the traditional sources of heroin," said Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.

It was here in Lowell, an old mill town northeast of Boston, where law-enforcement officials first identified the Colombians' new strategy. Cocaine dealers from Colombia and the Dominican Republic have operated out of Lowell since the mid-1980s, finding cover in the large Latino community here, but police say the nature of their operations has changed in the past couple of years.

"When the Colombians went into the heroin business around here, they did not just go after existing markets, but instead they deliberately set out to create new consumers, new addicts for a new product, and that's what they are still up to," said Lowell Police Chief Edward F. Davis.

By using informants and undercover agents, police discovered that street dealers often offered a dose or two of heroin free when they were selling crack cocaine.